By Jerry Klinger, President of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation
“Arlington National Cemetery represents the American people for past, present, and future generations by laying to rest those few who have served our nation with dignity and honor, while immersing guests in the cemetery’s living history.”
—Mission Statement of Arlington National Cemetery
For more than a decade, Ken Poch had been a regular visitor to Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, DC. Arlington is America’s premier military cemetery, “A national shrine—a living history of freedom— where dignity and honor rest in solemn repose,”(1) as its website declares.
Poch was not just a visitor or a tourist. He had a mission on behalf of the American people: to acknowledge, document, and honor the sacrifice and patriotism of the American Jew for their country. “There’s a myth that Jews don’t fight and don’t serve,” he said. “I want to know who these people were,” he added, referring to the many graves he cataloged.(2)
Poch had relocated to Reston, Virginia from Brooklyn, New York, accepting a position as an audio-visual technician in the 1980s. After reading a poignant book by Mel Young about Jews in the Civil War, Poch went to Arlington Cemetery to place stones on the gravesites and say kaddish for five Jewish Civil War soldiers buried there who had died fighting for the Union.
While touring the cemetery, he observed an ocean of white headstones with crosses. He also saw a sprinkling of gravesites whose tombstones were carved with a Star of David. Before World War I, headstones did not have crosses or any designations of religious orientation. Wondering how many Jews were buried at Arlington, Poch asked the cemetery’s administration office, but they didn’t know. No one had ever documented or identified the numbers of honored Jewish dead buried in the cemetery. And just like that, Poch’s mission began.
For years, Poch visited the cemetery with his camera and notebooks. He would walk around the grounds
looking for names that might be Jewish. He spent hundreds of hours gathering information that he meticulously researched. Utilizing records from the Office of the Army Historian, writing to surviving family members, searching files, photographs, documents, and burial information, he slowly identified
Jews in Arlington’s cemetery.
By 2002, Poch had identified 2,700 interments of Jewish United States Service personnel and a small number of their spouses and family members who were buried at Arlington. His work was not totally scientific because interments are not cataloged by religion at Arlington. He sometimes relied on guesswork to confirm his identifications.
In certain cases, family members did not respond to his inquiries. In other cases, the deceased kept their
Jewishness secret, as did Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Simon Suhler.(3) Sometimes, even relatives were not aware of the Jewish background. In some situations, Jews were buried as Christians even if they had not converted, such as Major General Maurice Rose, who had served as an armored commander under General Patton during World War II and was killed in action. Rose was the son of a rabbi, but had never publicized his Jewish identity because he apparently worried it would hurt his career potential in the military. Rose’s wife, who was Christian, ensured that he was buried under a cross.
During the Civil War (1861-1865), it was common for Jews not to designate their religious affiliation. They feared that if they were wounded during battle, they would be the last ones evacuated because they were Jews. Consequently, the full and accurate number of Jews who served in the Civil War will never be completely known, as many will never be recognized as Jewish.
Regardless, Poch made remarkable progress. He identified Jewish generals, admirals, privates, seamen, and airmen. He identified famous American Jews who had served in the military, as well as those who were not famous. He collected their stories and documented their lives.
“Each person had a story of how they lived and died,” Poch would say, concluding poignantly, “You’re only dead if you’re forgotten.”
Eventually, Poch’s records filled over 30 boxes and were donated to the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland.
Walking along the roads and hills of Arlington brings alive the meaning of the descriptive phrase, “Cemeteries are outdoor museums.” No matter what level of historical awareness one may have, the Stars of David on the tombstones tell a story.
Here are a handful of Jewish service members who are buried at Arlington:
Abram Kunen was a 23-year-old seaman aboard the USS Detroit when it deployed in May 1898, attacking Spanish land emplacements in the opening salvos of the Spanish American War. He received the Sampson Medal for heroic duty under fire. His gravesite is passed by thousands of Americans daily.
Near the crest of Chaplains Hill, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation was involved with the Four Chaplains memorial. A long overdue, neglected honor to Jewish chaplains was corrected.(4) On Chaplains Hill are the gravesites of three high ranking Jewish chaplains: Captain Joshua Goldberg, CHC, USN; Rear Admiral Bertram Korn, CHC, USN; and Ch, Brigadier General Simeon Kobrinetz, USAF.
Captain Joshua Goldberg was born in 1896 in Bobruisk, Russia. In 1914, Goldberg was drafted into the Russian Army as a private. With the collapse of Czarist Russia, Goldberg made it to the United States. In 1916, he enlisted in the US Army. Rabbi Goldberg served in World War I as an infantryman with the American Expeditionary Force. He received five battle ribbons for heroism. After the war, he returned to the US where he became an ordained Rabbi in 1926. Goldberg returned to the service of America in 1941 as a commissioned Naval Chaplain. He was the first Jew to obtain a Navy Chaplain’s commission.
Chaplain Bertram Korn, Rear Admiral, US Navy, served during World War II in California and China with the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions. He was a noted Jewish historian, pulpit rabbi, and the first Jewish chaplain to achieve the rank of Flag Officer in the US Navy. Chaplain Simeon Kobrinetz, an Air Force Reservist, was the first— and currently only—Jewish chaplain to become a general in the US Air Force.
In Arlington, the high ranking rest with the low ranking, equal before G-d. PFC Robert Cohen, taken prisoner by the Nazis during the Battle of the Bulge, was murdered in the woods along with 85 other Americans. Two brothers, PVT Marvin Kaminsky and PFC Maynard Kaminsky, were killed three months apart during World War II. Maj Gen Julius Ochs Adler served in both World Wars and later gained renown as the general manager of The New York Times.
Sgt Maj Lawrence Freedman,(5) Army Special Forces, was the first American killed in Somalia in 1993. He was nicknamed Super Jew.(6)
Major Eddie Willner was born in Muenchen-Gladbach, Germany, in 1926.(7) He died in March 2008. Poch’s records noted that he was an Auschwitz survivor. At 18, he had been imprisoned at Auschwitz as a slave laborer. On a death march to Buchenwald, Willner escaped. He immigrated to the US where he joined the Army, specifically the US 3rd Armored Div, Company D.
One illustrious grave belongs to Admiral Hyman Rickover,(8) who served in the US Navy for 63 years. He is recognized as the father of the modern US Nuclear Navy. He is buried under a polished black stone without a Star of David.
Colonel Arthur Joseph Goldberg(9), USAF, Secretary of Labor, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, US Ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador at Large and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, rests adjacent to Section 21 of Arlington Cemetery.
Section 21 is the Nurses Section, where six Jewish nurses currently rest. One individual in particular, Rachael (Rae) Landy, was a Lithuanian- American Jewish nurse who served in the US military and pioneered healthcare for impoverished Jews in Israel. She retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Nursing Corps, the second-highest rank for a woman in her branch. Although she was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, a modest, standard headstone obscures the story of this incredible woman.
Near the Nurses Section is an unusual memorial—a ship’s mast to be exact. It is the mast from the USS Maine, which blew up in Havana, Cuba’s harbor, creating the pretense for the Spanish American War. Two hundred and twenty nine sailors died on the Maine. The second-in-command of the Maine was a Jewish officer, and 19 of the crew members were Jews.
Below the Maine memorial are three new memorials, simply designed as three vertical rectangular stones mounted on granite bases with brass plaques affixed to the front and back. The first memorial with its brass interpretive marker is for the 1986 Challenger(10) space shuttle disaster. An American Jew, Dr. Judith Resnick, was one of the astronauts. The second memorial is for the service personnel who died in the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission ordered by President Carter. The third memorial is for the 2003 Columbia(11) space shuttle disaster. There were no remains to bring back for burial.
What is unique about the Columbia memorial is the inclusion of a Star of David (via the Israeli flag) as a national symbol in memory of Col Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, who was a crew member.
There are many more stories that have never been told. Each one is about a special individual who was proud to be a Jewish American. Poch knew each one, but unfortunately did not have the chance to finish telling their stories. He passed away in 2003 after battling Lou Gehrig’s disease. His remains were interred in Arlington National Cemetery. But his legacy lives on; all these years later, his stories have not just been told but expanded. As the epitaph on the base of Sgt. Major Lawrence N. Freedman’s gravestone says, “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
Thousands of others, famous and not, lay together in those hallowed grounds.
May their memory, among all those who gave their lives for our country that represents freedom, be for a blessing.
Jerry Klinger currently serves as the president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation. More information can be found at www.JASHP.org. Originally Published in The Shavuot 5783 Jewish-American Warrior Magazine.